Catching up on some reading, will resume regular reviews this week.

As regular readers may have noticed I didn’t get around to a book review last week, either. I had intentionally skipped the previous week’s review so I could try to get caught up on some other reading. I ended up also borrowing the fifth book of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. At over six hundred pages it was an undertaking, but that still isn’t something I have difficulty reading over a weekend. But other things came up and I wasn’t able to finish it until just a few minutes ago.

I’m not going to review Knausgaard’s book. It’s a large, intimidating work and besides,  I wouldn’t feel comfortable reviewing it until the sixth book comes out in English so I can read it anyway. It’s not six books in a series of novels but rather a novel so long that it’s split up into six books. I highly recommend it, but I won’t list my thoughts here… at least not yet, anyway.

I did borrow another book, Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto in order to review it tomorrow, or possibly Tuesday. I probably won’t get to read it until tomorrow. I still have all those back issues of magazines which I subscribe to that I haven’t read yet. I’m going to try to get at least some of those later today. Right now I want to try some fiction writing of my own, which I haven’t done in a while. I haven’t abandoned the centaur idea, but have settled on a form with which to tell that story. But today I’m going to just try a writing exercise in order to get back into the groove of things.


Postponing this week’s book review.

As I said in a recent post, I was planning on postponing my book review this week, but I didn’t realize how little reading I actually got done over the weekend. I was at times too busy, too tired or too distracted by how pissed off I was about something that happened at work on Friday (which I won’t go into) that I wasn’t able to get much reading done. Even when I tried sitting down with the book I plan on reviewing next I couldn’t focus enough on it to pay attention to what was happening, even if I wasn’t trying to take notes.

(As you can see, I didn’t even get around to writing any sort of blog post this weekend, that’s how distracted I was. I should have probably written something, even if it was crap, but never mind.)

So, I’m going to dedicate the next day or so after work to reading the book and writing the review. I already resolved to try working on my creative writing more on the weekends anyway (although guess how that went with this last one), so I can’t make myself feel bad. Reading a book and writing a review about it must count for some intellectual development for myself and some enjoyment for others, so it can’t be all bad, right?

Book review: “Land of Love and Ruins” by Oddný Eir. (Delayed due to power outage)

I did write the following review yesterday but before I finished we lost power because of the blizzard. So I did write this when I promised I would but couldn’t publish it because I couldn’t connect to the Internet at home.

The narration in Land of Love and Ruins by Oddný Eir (translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton) travels through time both forwards and backwards as well as through space (primarily through Iceland) both effortlessly and in broad strokes. Yet it isn’t lacking in detail by a long shot. Take for example a passage in which the main character and her boyfriend Birdy decide while during a trip in London to visit some book shops: “Today we visited bookshops. First went to say hello to a porcupine, sharpening its snout in doubts.” The paragraph continues without any mention again to the porcupine, as if that one seemingly innocuous detail was simply part of the bookshop experience.

This makes sense, as this autobiographical novel doesn’t so much have a plot as it threads together glimpses throughout the narrator’s life in dramatic arch, focusing mostly around the early years in her relationship with Birdy, an ornithologist. All of the sections of the book are written as diary entries written on holidays (which may even be from Eir’s own diary—we find out about two thirds into the book that the main character’s name is indeed Oddný). The first entry takes place on the Feast of St. Lucy, the patron saint of the blind and includes an observation that love is blind before the two lovers meet.

The book centers around Oddný’s relationship with Birdy but doesn’t focus on it. (For one long stretch of the story Birdy has gone to live in a cave by himself to find himself. While it’s mentioned from time to time, life goes on for everybody else.) Oddný also explores her relationship with her archeologist brother, Owlie as well as with her female ancestors and their history in Iceland. Oddný’s relationship with the land takes a major role in the book with her frequent traveling, both by herself and with others. She offers her thoughts on conservation of Iceland’s resources and how this ties in with national identity, and how this could be lost with economical development.

At one point Oddný accompanies Owlie, an archeologist, on a dig and they discover ruins of an ancient dwelling which may be Celtic in nature. All of Oddný’s thoughts on land and heritage tie together in this one site. Again, the thoughts on the ruins themselves are fleeting and mixed with all of her other observations as she goes throughout her daily life. But given the awe and excitement she expresses and the fact that the ruins touch on many of the major themes, it feels as the book’s centerpiece—even to the point that diagrams of the site appear at the beginning and end of the novel.

Land of Love and Ruins can be a challenging read at first, considering the lack of a discernible plot on the surface. Eir’s philosophical observations make the reader feel that there’s much more under the surface—there may be at times, but it also is a representation of how our thoughts and observations on the world are just that—fleeting, just like our connection with the land and the heritage that we tie to it.

Thoughts on Amazon Prime.

What’s this? Two blog posts in one day? After I published my last one I decided to do something that I’ve been meaning to do for a few months now, and sign up for a thirty day trial of Amazon Prime. Even in just the few hours  I’ve had it I’ve made a few observations about the differences between that and Netflix. I wanted to try Amazon Prime for two reasons: I’ve gotten really bored with Netflix’s lackluster selection and I wanted to also see what the Prime Reading option had in store for me as well when it comes time for me to resume writing book reviews in March.* There are other services as well which I’ll also go over but those were just extra icing on the cake for me.

I’ll start with a comparison of the Netflix streaming service versus Amazon Prime’s streaming. For the most part I watch both on my television through my Nintendo Wii. Because it matters I should point out that I’m watching both on a standard definition television. I would love to get a more modern (and bigger) set but as I have some big financial plans this year I don’t see myself upgrading anytime soon. I also have the slowest speed available through Comcast around here, although I haven’t noticed any effect on either service.

Netflix looks just fine on my television. I never had any complaints there. The interface, while a bit basic and having less options than the web version, serves its purpose without any regular lag. Amazon’s channel took quite a while to load the first time today, but I’m guessing that had to do with the change in my account. Since then it boots up at the same speed. However, I’m noticing that with many of the selections so far the picture quality is slightly lesser than what I would find on Netflix. I especially compared Star Trek: The Next Generation which is available on both services. If I didn’t already have Netflix I wouldn’t even think about the quality of Amazon Prime’s picture. I have read that depending on the user’s setup the quality can be comparable, so it could be my equipment that’s making the difference. Could it be that this would inspire me to upgrade that as well?

As far as the selection is concerned, I like what I’m seeing so far on Amazon Prime. Of course by switching I’m potentially losing some titles on Netflix that I would have enjoyed, but Amazon’s selection overall looks to be much better. Not only that, but through the same channel on my Wii I can access all of the instant videos that aren’t offered through the Prime service. Many of them can be rented quite affordably. I’m a bit of a cheapskate so I would really want to see the movie, but it’s nice to know that the option is there.

I also wanted to compare Prime Reading to visiting the public library to read new or at least somewhat new book releases so I could review them on my blog. Right off the bat I noticed that Prime has a small selection the newest book was released nearly four months ago. Neither problem is potentially that much of a concern when it comes to selecting a book for a review, but when I could chose from many more and much more recent book through the Maine public library system I wonder if the convenience is worth it. But it is more convenient than physically going to the library. That’s not to mention if I have a specific title that I want to order, which I have to wait to be delivered to my local branch. Cost is also significant. Borrowing a book from the library is free. Then again, technically it’s not—I pay taxes. I could apply the same logic to Prime Reading if I keep the service for video.

But, alas, I could also get Amazon Kindle Unlimited for unlimited reading of millions of books for approximately the same cost as what Prime would amount to once a month. Then I really would be paying for the convenience of not going to the library. Is it really worth that cost?

Like I said, there are other services that come with Amazon Prime, such as streaming of digital music. There are many albums that I can listen to either online or on my phone (provided I get a good enough signal) at no additional cost. It is a bit annoying that there are many albums that I want to listen to that aren’t offered through Prime, or if they are, not in their entirety. But, like I said, this was just a bonus for me. I have other legal means to stream music, even if it does mean listening to the occasional ad. Besides, sometimes I really would rather buy an album in order to support the artist.

But wait, I could also sign up for Amazon Music Unlimited, which would give me access to the albums I want plus many more, all for the same price as Prime.

There are many other services that I could go into and this post is getting pretty long, so I’ll only point out one other one that caught my attention when I signed up for this. Amazon owns Audible, and offers many audio books to Prime subscribers for free. They also have a thing called Audible Channels, but it’s essentially the same thing as podcasts (and in fact, even includes podcasts that are already free anyway).

But wait, I could upgrade to Audible for the same cost per month as Prime—noticing a trend here? It looks like in many cases being a subscriber to Amazon Prime offers a limited version of other services through Amazon, and if you want to get more you have to pay more. Honestly, I don’t see a problem with the idea of a tiered program Unfortunately the cost is a bit ridiculous. Okay, so you don’t have to be a Prime member to also sign up for one of these other services. But I would think that if you chose to upgrade, being a Prime member should give you a discount on the other subscription. For example, you pay nine dollars a month for Kindle Unlimited, or you pay nine dollars a month for Prime and then five for Kindle Unlimited on top of that. I’m not particularly interested in any of these other services myself but I can’t imagine somebody signing up for Prime, making the yearly payment and then signing up for a monthly bill for an upgraded portion of what they’re already getting, ultimately doubling the cost.

So, when it comes down to it, am I going to follow through with the trial period and sign up for Amazon Prime and cancel my Netflix account? Honestly, I’m on the fence. The better selection and access to other services, albeit limited, make up for the slightly lesser picture quality of Amazon’s video. When it comes down to it, the yearly payment for Amazon Prime comes out to less per month than my monthly Netflix bill. That may end up being the deciding factor between the two.

For that matter, I could just save my money and cancel both services. After all, I can always borrow movies through the library (even though that raises other concerns, such as my history of borrowing damaged discs frustratingly often) or rent them individually through Amazon or Redbox. (That also has a trade-off: assuming that I’m only going to watch a movie once anyway, Redbox’s cheaper price and DVD quality offsets Amazon’s convenience and still lesser picture quality.) I’m probably still going to borrow books from the library anyway. Should I just be a cheapskate and cancel all of these services?


*As a side note for those who may care, because of potential plans for the first weekend of March I may end up not getting to the first book review until the second Monday.

Monday Book Review: “Margaret the First” by Danielle Dutton.

Danielle Dutton’s recent book Margaret the First engages in a delightful illusion. By using brief passages for each scene Dutton manages to weave together events from all across Margaret Cavendish’s life beginning when she was a child right to her death. However, each passage leads to the next, creating a seamless narrative. This makes it easy for the reader to barely notice that within 160 pages 49 years of a woman’s life passes by.

A change in first-person to second about halfway through jars the flow slightly but not without merit. The shift in perspective shifts the book’s focus from the observant to the observed. Growing up, Margaret is lost in her own thoughts and still keeping to herself outside and observing the world while her sisters move on to more “adult” things like raising families. When she does marry (not without some scandal) she marries William Cavendish, an aristocrat and writer who hosted many great thinkers in their home, such as Hobbes and Descartes. Margaret discovers a passion for writing herself and begins to publish her own books of plays and philosophy. Amid critical acclaim she also meets controversy, as it’s not considered proper in the seventeenth century for women to publish their own writing. Indeed, even when she suffers from illness at one point the doctor proclaims that it was her writing that caused her to go ill. When she publishes her second book, many accuse her of being a fraud, for how could a woman be able to write so much? She chooses to take this as a good sign: “‘If any thinks my book so well wrote as that I had not the wit to do it, truly I am glad for my wit’s sake!'”

The second part of the book takes place during the reformation after the war, and is when the shift to second-person takes place. While we still follow Margaret and her innermost thoughts, our attention is adjusted to now take in the criticism of others. As she and William attempt to re-enter civil society, there are those that scorn them, or at least her. Cries of “Mad Madge” can be heard from outside her carriage as she’s on her way to visit a group of esteemed scientists, for example. Other women are critical of her as well, providing her nowhere to turn to but misery. She begins to think of herself as a monster and throughout the book laments her inability to provide William with more children (he had ten with his first wife). Yet she can not help who she is and her urge to keep writing.

The third and shortest section (aside from the prologue and epilogue) contains one more narrative shift, albeit more subtle; by changing the tense from the past to the present we have not only the affect the outside world is having on Margaret but the sense of urgency that it has on her in her later years.

Dutton presents Margaret as a sort of proto-feminist, not belonging to any specific movement. At times she resents that she doesn’t conform to feminine norms, at others she declares that she wishes to eschew society’s expectations of her in order to be herself. This latter attitude is presented as more of a solitary goal than one to elevate the status of women in Elizabethan society. However, the distinction of being the first woman to have her written work published is too big to ignore, as is society’s reaction to it. She may have been the victim of ridicule and seen as the exception rather than the rule at the time. Still, by presenting us with Margaret’s story, Dutton demonstrates the trials that one faces when stepping outside of society’s expectations. Breaking down gender roles isn’t easy but it can be done, even by one person.

The book often repeats phrases for dramatic effect, which is the biggest symptom in the book of steering too close to almost being too intelligently written for its own good. That’s better than the other way around, but the conciseness of the book prevents it from veering off into that regard. Still, the prose as it is feels just right, helping the reader take in the surroundings while breezing through this quick read. A second reading may help take in the impact of the story, but either way Margaret the First is definitely recommended.

I know I only started the Monday Book Reviews a few months ago and that they tend to be some of my more popular posts. But as I have stated on this blog a few times recently I will be taking two months off from them. In January, I want to get caught up on reading other books than new releases. I still intend on jotting down my thoughts on these books on Mondays but not in full-fledged book reviews. In February, as usual, I will be taking part in the RPM Challenge and won’t have much time to read anything other than the usual magazines and maybe a book or two. I intend on resuming Monday Book Reviews in March.

Monday Book Review: “A Natural History of Hell” by Jeffrey Ford.

Jeffrey Ford’s latest collection of short stories, A Natural History of Hell, begins with a story about exorcism and ends with one about making a deal with the devil. The overall collection is not a religious work—rather, it uses various aspects of mythology as some of the inspiration for various elements throughout—but those two stories bookmark the tone of the rest of the collection rather nicely. All of the stories are fantastical, ranging from science fiction to horror.

However, the book can’t be dismissed as merely escapist genre fiction. The stories are morality tales that are intelligently written. The dialogue can get a little hokey at times, in particular in the stories The Blameless and Rocket Ship to Hell. Still, the creative plots with the twists and turns on top of them keep the reader intrigued enough to stick with the book from beginning to end.

The standout short story in the collection is The Thyme Fiend, which centers around a boy, Emmett,  who can only quell his night terrors by consuming thyme. One day, he discovers a skeleton in a well, which turns out to be the remains of Jimmy Tooth, a local who died three years prior. After the skeleton is in his casket Emmett begins to see it walk around. Only Emmett can see it and only thyme can stop these visions. Eventually he befriends Jimmy and via a brief visit to Hell, starts to unravel a scandal featuring prominent people in the town. The more he learns, the stranger it sounds and the less people believe him (except for a girl he’s friends with, whom becomes his girlfriend by the end). This leads to further estrangement from the town folk that live a conformist lifestyle. He may not be a freak, but he gains a reputation for having mental problems. There’s no love lost between Emmett and the rest of the town. But at least Jimmy, through his actions, regains redemption and some form of justice.

Other stories throughout the book contain Japanese demon dogs with human faces, failed trips to outer space, and Emily Dickinson making a deal with Death himself in order to extend her life. Freaks, demons, sorcerers and magic of all kinds abound in A Natural History of Hell. Suspense and adventure take turns to tantalize and entertain. I wouldn’t recommend read to this book right before bed. If the imagery won’t give you nightmares, the energy with which it’s written will keep you awake.

Tuesday Random Thoughts: Upcoming book reviews, automating my reading habits (as well as waste), screenplay ideas.

  • I just got a couple of books for the next two weeks’ book reviews, A Natural History of Hell by Jeffrey Ford and Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton. I plan on reviewing those books for the next two Mondays before I take the following two months off from book reviews. However, I forgot that Christmas was on a Sunday this year, and I was going to be busy the day before. I typically try to read books for my reviews in their entirety the weekend beforehand. I’ll try to get to it but I may have to postpone the later review until some weekend in January.
  • I’m thinking of cancelling my Netflix subscription and signing up for Amazon Prime. It’s not just that I’m annoyed by the selection (or lack thereof) on Netflix, but I’m very enticed by the unlimited e-books. I don’t know what the selection is going to be like but it’s worth looking into. The only problem is the cost. The cheapest option for Amazon Prime is 99 dollars a hear. That comes out to just a little more than Netflix for a lot more stuff. In other words, I’m spending about the same amount every year anyway. But my brain is stuck on “99” (a year on Amazon) versus eight bucks (a month on Netflix, roughly). I don’t usually have that much at once. Maybe I’ll sign up for the free trial this month anyway, and then pay the one-time fee come January. Of course, there’s always the library.
  • One of the reasons I wanted to try the Prime plan for reading on my Kindle, however, was so I wouldn’t have to go to the library once a week for book reviews. If I could stand the selection of books available to me on Prime then I would be able to cut out one more errand. That’s why I’m looking into getting trash pickup for my apartment instead of taking trips to the dump every few weeks. I think my neighbors in the downstairs apartment already do that. Perhaps I should ask them if we could split the cost and I’ll throw my stuff out with theirs. Now, if only there was somebody out this way that would automatically deliver my groceries every week I’ll be all set. We sell food where I work but not enough of the the stuff I get.
  • I had the idea of going through some drafts of older work and turning them into outlines for screenplays. I forgot how many of these drafts were really scraps rather than fleshed-out pieces. I got some ideas, especially some weird ones that I might be able to stitch together into a sort of surreal piece. I also have some novels and short stories that I wanted to keep as novels and short stories, but maybe I could rework them into screenplays as well. I think I’ll explore that idea in tomorrow’s writing progress post.